not in our stars, but in ourselves
Sandy: I don’t know if you’re a detective or a pervert.
Jeffrey: That’s for me to know and you to find out.
And there, my friends, you have it: Alfred Hitchcock’s entire output (not to mention the film noir genre) in a nutshell. David Lynch’s Blue Velvet is a murder mystery, a dream, a peek underneath the cheery veneer of small-town America, an examination of sexual psychosis; in a word, Hitchcock. But of course, Lynch is no imitator. Blue Velvet is all his own, a clear midpoint between the nightmare world of Eraserhead and the procedural surrealism of Twin Peaks.
In picturesque Lumberton, Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) is home from college after his father suffered a debilitating stroke. While walking home from the hospital, he finds a crudely severed, decomposing ear. He takes the ear to Detective Williams (George Dickerson), who agrees to investigate, but advises Jeffrey that he won’t be able to join in. As it turns out, the detective’s teenage daughter, Sandy (Laura Dern), decides to share with Jeffrey what she’s overheard from her bedroom above her dad’s office. The detective has been eyeing a nightclub singer, Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), who lives in an apartment near Jeffrey’s house. Jeffrey decides to break into her apartment to see if he can find anything – and boy, does he. He hides in her closet when Dorothy comes home, and witnesses her break down in tears during a phone call. Dorothy finds him, threatens him with a knife, and then comes onto him – when there’s a knock at the door. It’s Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), a violent psychopath who beats her up and dry humps her. He’s also holding her husband and child hostage, and he seems to be involved in a criminal conspiracy that involves Detective Williams’s partner. Jeffrey continues to visit Dorothy, which leads to Frank kidnapping him and – when Jeffrey tries to defend Dorothy against Frank’s sadistic outbursts – beats the holy hell out of him and leaves him on the outskirts of town. Jeffrey realizes he has to tell Detective Williams what’s going on. Williams goes to investigate, and Dorothy – naked and battered – shows up at Jeffrey’s house. He decides to go to her apartment after she’s taken to the hospital, where he finds several corpses. Jeffery calls for help on the police radio, before he realizes Frank has a radio as well. Frank bursts into the apartment, but Jeffery hides in the closet and shoots him. Jeffrey and Sandy get together, Dorothy reunites with her child, and that’s the end.
Like many Lynch movies, and like Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet operates on pure dream logic. Perhaps your dreams are different, but mine – and, I suspect, Lynch’s – are usually not rooted in emotion. They’re chaotic blends of memory, fear, sensation, and desire. Maybe that’s what Roger Ebert, who generally thought Lynch was a good director, objected to in his one-star pan of the movie: how could a movie – a product of the Hollywood machine, something meant to peddle happy endings and wish fulfillment and emotional excess resolved and rewarded – treat sexual sadism in a manner that Ebert found so flippant? I believe I’ve said this before, but even though we all – myself included – love Ebert, he’s wrong. Lynch isn’t flippant; he’s just not bringing emotion with him into a dream. He brings his own hangups, he brings his memories, he brings his traumas and his hopes, but he doesn’t bring his emotions. I don’t either. Does anyone?
Besides, Lynch isn’t an uncritical, impassive observer of the sexualized violence that Frank practices and Dorothy begs for. Where Hitchcock movies – and nearly every film noir – tend to implicate the woman in a man’s downfall, Lynch never does. He uses the old tropes (Sandy the virgin, Dorothy the whore) to blow them up and reveal that these women are just trying to do the best they can in a world that tries to control and dehumanize them. Sandy, blonde and tanned and clad in pastels, struggles to reconcile the expectation that she remain in her nice all-American high school romance with her football star boyfriend against her burgeoning feelings for Jeffrey. Dorothy, brunette and pale and clad in jewel tones, struggles to accept what seems to be her lot in life: that she’s merely an object to be desired and discarded, a doll to be tossed aside; in fact, all she really wants is to love and be loved. In other films of this type, whether Hitchcock or Hawks or Huston, the woman is usually a cipher, a mirror, an enchantment. She’s not to be trusted, let alone respected, just possessed and/or discarded. Lynch knows that men, in movies and in life, tend to see women in such terms. He shows what happens when that dehumanizing patriarchal impulse is writ large in the character of Frank; he shows what happens when a man tries to resist it in Jeffrey. (Lynch has said that Jeffrey is somewhat autobiographical; one imagines that Lynch did indeed manage to work a chicken walk into a courtship at some point.)Detectives and perverts are motivated by the same animating force; straight men all need to contend with the violent turns their scopophilia can take. In other words, Lynch calls on all the structure and symbolism of Hitchcock and of film noir, with their questionable (and unquestioned) gender politics, and exposes their inherent cruelty.
Blue Velvet is full of cruelty, but it’s full of hope, too – in a strange, Agent Dale Cooper kind of way. (One imagines that Lynch sees himself in Coop, too.) Sandy tells Jeffrey about a dream she had, where the world was horribly dark and everyone was miserable. Robins came to the world, and Sandy realized that they not only brought love with them, but also light. By the end of the film, Jeffrey and Sandy and Dorothy live in a bright, sunny world, full of robins and – apparently – joy and peace. Dreams, fantastical or surreal or plain disturbing as they may be at the time, usually show us something true. Sometimes it’s hard to figure it out; sometimes it’s hard to accept; sometimes it’s just plain distressing; but it’s usually an accurate representation of what we want and what we fear. If we’re lucky, it shows us the right way forward, too.